Non-Western Individualists

Posted on Oct 29 1999

Americans and other Westerners are said to be far more individualistic than people of other cultures. People of other cultures are said to be predominantly group-oriented–collectivists at heart.

Americans are the wild, ego-centered, rugged individualists, spirited and selfish, while the Japanese and others hold steadfastly to group conformity. America and the West celebrates the individual, while the rest look at the best interests of the group as a whole, rather than the individual.

In Japan, for example, they say that “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” While in the West, the nail that sticks out has, figuratively speaking, traditionally been regarded as the heroic figure.

I have given this view considerable thought, and have come to disagree. Contrary to the standard line, I believe there are actually many instances in which non-westerners prove to be far better individualists.

The Western Europeans, for example, are almost invariably a bunch of group-oriented socialists. There is hardly any rugged individualism in France, Sweden and Germany, all highly socialistic countries. More individual economic freedoms probably exist in Hong Kong and Taiwan, where the welfare rolls are kept firmly in check.

The same probably holds true for the United States. In terms of government welfare programs, there is probably less government re-distribution of wealth in Hong Kong than in the United States. And, as previously mentioned, even the mainland Chinese Communists do not have a “Chinese with Disabilities Act.”

On a more social-cultural level, we have the basic issue of name-calling. In the East, people are generally referred to by their last names, preceded by the formal title of Mr., Miss or Mrs., as the case may be. In more egalitarian America, however, everybody wants to call you by your first name. In fact, in many cases, Americans want to take this even a step further by turning “John” into “Johnny,” William into “Billy, and so forth.

This is not individualism, since the goal of the informality is to foster more closeness, more affinity, and greater group or relationship cohesion (a group focus). Whereas the formal title of “Mr.” clearly sets individuals apart, as distinct and separate entities. It sets forth a necessary space, to be obliterated only when legitimate (earned) personal intimacy actually develops.

This Asian practice strikes me as particularly individualistic, clearly discernible from the promiscuous familiarity that characterizes most hand-holding, back-slapping, informal, group-oriented American relationships and activities. Even the socialistic Europeans are more individualistic in this respect.

Then there is the whole issue of “face.” Americans have not traditionally been particularly concerned with the issue of face. Yet “face” is a concept inextricably bound up with such essentials as honor, self-respect and pride, all vital components of individualism qua individualism.

During World War II, for example, many American P.O.W.s were quite willing, ready and able, to subject themselves to all sorts of human indignities in order to survive. Whereas the Japanese, by sharp contrast, driven by face concerns, would rather commit suicide.

Mass group brainwashing? Shame as a social construct? Perhaps, but I still believe that there is something inherently individualistic about having so much honor, face, self-respect and pride, that it becomes downright fatalistic: You would rather die than submit.

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